Friday, December 26, 2008

Stephen, the first martyr

Because I'm one of those "crazy pacifists," I am sometimes challenged to defend its apparent impracticality. In other words, challengers will say, it sounds great as an ideal, but we live in the "real world," and we all know what happens in the "real world" if you "turn the other cheek": your other cheek gets hit, and harder!

Of course, this objection is true. On the other hand, making peace was never offered to followers of Jesus as a recipe for "success," and in fact, if anyone portrays it as such, they're sadly mistaken. The truth is that, at least sometimes and perhaps often, it will not "work." But "success" and "work" are in quote marks here because their use in the objection employs definitions that Christians cannot accept: they are definitions of worldly power constructed by marketplace values. As Christians, "success" has to be defined by our faithfulness to the one we follow. This is why Christians have always esteemed martyrs: they have been successful.

Today is the feast day of Stephen, the first martyr. You can read his story in Acts 6:8-7:2,44-8:1. The following comment on Stephen's martyrdom is from a sermon of St. Fulgentius of Ruspe.

Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.

Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.

Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvelous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.

Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.

Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defence,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.

My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

God, you wouldn’t do THAT, would you?

I have prostate cancer. Actually, I can now officially say “had.” Yesterday’s robotic surgery removed the prostate and ALL of the cancer with it. I’ve been overwhelmed with the prayers and concern, and truly humbled by it. Many, many prayers have been offered and answered positively.
Many of you already know the story, and I’m sorry if this is repetitive (but you can stop reading, can’t you?), and I really do not want to be melodramatic. In fact, I made sure to make one old friend promise to NOT start a world-wide 24/7 prayer chain on my behalf. Not that I don’t want prayers or think they don’t mean anything, but I’m a firm believer in God’s gracious guidance over my life, and a firm believer that God will do what is best for the people who mean the most to me. God and I have had a continual 3½ month conversation about this thing, so he’s well aware of all the angles I can possibly conceive.
So, here’s the story. I had a routine blood screen a few weeks ago, on September 5, because my prescription for cholesterol medicine had run out and I didn’t have more refills without having my liver enzymes checked, i.e., a blood test. The routine blood test showed an elevated PSA level – about 7 – which raised a “yellow flag” for Dr. Geoff Hoover. Geoff sent me to a specialist, Dr. Stephen Archer, a urologist, for further investigation.
Dr. Archer, on September 26, examined me. (Now comes the gory details, so if you don’t want to know, skip a few paragraphs!) First, I had to give a urine sample, which turned up negative. Dr. Archer even asked if I’d been sick on the day they took the blood at Dr. Hoover’s office, to which I answered no. He then had to do the “DRE” (if you don’t know what that is, consider yourself very fortunate! Thank God for doctors with small hands.)
The DRE showed nothing, so he ordered another blood test, which again showed an elevated PSA, this time up to 11. When the results came back from that test the next week, he ordered a biopsy, which he did on October 10. The biopsy showed cancer in both sides of the prostate.
Next step was to try to determine whether or not the cancer was isolated in the prostate or had spread. On Monday of this week, October 20, I had a bone scan. The next day, Tuesday, October 21, I had a CAT scan.
Apparently, something turned up on the bone scan, so Dr. Archer ordered an Xray on the 8th and 9th ribs. That was done on October 24 in place of the consultation with the Dr. we’d had scheduled for that day. That was more than a little disconcerting, and we had to wait over the weekend – the consultation was pushed back to the 28th (the next Tuesday). But Dr. Archer got the results on Monday morning, and called immediately to tell me that the Xray was negative – which meant that the cancer had not spread outside of the prostate.
At that point, we began thinking about treatments. Because of my “young age” (at least for this kind of disease ;-) ), surgery was the recommended treatment. Radiation might allow the cancer to re-emerge in the prostate at a later date, or ro re-emerge somewhere else, and if I have radiation now it would no longer be a possibility in the future. Even the “proton therapy” is radiation – though with a newer and presumably better method of delivery. Despite potential problems, surgery is the cure here.
So, we decided to look into the robotic surgery method, which led us to go to Dr. Mays in Midwest City, who works out of Midwest Regional Medical Center where they have one of the robots (the “DaVinci” robot). Everything about this process seemed positive, so we elected to have the surgery on Dec. 17th. The robotic procedure is less radical than the “strip mining” old method, with less recovery time, less blood loss, and fewer side effects afterward. Sounds great, but waiting from early November until December 17th seemed like a bit of a risk, especially to Mendy, so Dr. Mays recommended a hormone shot to keep the cancer from spreading until the surgery. I had that shot back on November 7th. The side effects have been minimal.
At any rate, last Sunday was the feast day of St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic and poet and truly one of the great spiritual giants in the history of Christianity. I noticed Friday as I read about him that he had died at age 49. Rats. I’m 49. On the other hand, there are so few other parallels between my life and John of the Cross that. . . . Well, you get the picture.
Further, December 17 was the feast day of . . . Lazarus. Yeah, you know – they guy who Jesus let die and then resurrected him. That was NOT what I wanted to hear! I wanted something like Saint George who slew the dragon! Why couldn’t Wednesday have been HIS feast day?
And finally, those of you who know me well know how much I “love” Stamps-Baxter songs (just as much as I love reality shows and Barry Manilow and, well, cancer!), and last Sunday in church the last song we sang was one of those: “Victory in Jesus!” God, you wouldn’t make my last ever song sung in church one of those, would you? No way. Of course, I could have just refused to sing it, but the song just before it, though not of the Stamps-Baxter genre, was just as bad, and I’d sang along with it already. So I went ahead and sang along with “Victory in Jesus,” knowing I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.
On a serious note, some of my friends have wondered about my recent obsession (?) with the saints of the Roman Catholic calendar. Not really an obsession, but I admire holiness, and these folks were indeed (usually) incredibly holy. If the writer of the sermon we call “Hebrews” in the New Testament can call upon a “great cloud of witnesses” with the knowledge that these are God’s holy ones who apparently now dwell with God yet continue to witness to the gospel, well, maybe a few of these can also fill that role.